A Communist Bureaucrat’s Mistake and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The wall, which claimed the lives of so many Germans from the “Democratic Republic” when they tried to escape to the western side, fell after a freak error by a second-line official.

berlin wall
Berlin Wall today. (Photo: Flickr)


It is often said that socialism works in theory, but not in practice. In reality, socialism has an unconquerable theoretical flaw. Contrary to the oft-repeated idea, the system that seeks to end private property is incapable of any economic planning. And it proposes the worst planning: centralization. But as Ludwig von Mises warned in the 1920s, prices are necessary for efficient resource allocation. Without these signals, any kind of coordination is impossible, much less in the hands of a government entity. But what the communists still don’t understand, despite all their failures, is that without property, there are no prices, and without prices, resource allocation is impossible. Without all this, centralized socialist planning collapses like a house of cards.

But this unconquerable theoretical problem, which showed exactly the same drawbacks in Cuba as in the Soviet Union, in Venezuela as in Allende’s Chile, and in North Korea as in communist China, does not seem to be enough to stop the socialists from insisting on the most expensive mistake in human history.

Although the model has failed from the beginning, and it is only a matter of time before each experiment falls, the foolishness of the socialists continues to claim the lives of many innocent people in each red adventure. In this sense, the Berlin Wall, and the delirious project of the hypocritical German Democratic Republic (GDR) expired on the day construction began on 13th August 1961.

As all socialist projects fall (and will fall), the only mystery that each new attempt raises is about its duration and its damages. Once the system cracks from within, either can be the drop that spills the glass of collectivist failure.

In the specific case of the Berlin Wall, the episode that triggered its fall was a simple error by a bureaucrat who faced the press to make an announcement issued by the Central Committee but without reading it in its entirety before meeting the journalists. Faced with a society demanding civil liberties and the Soviet Union in retreat and decline, the GDR authorities decided to relax departures and authorize temporary trips to West Germany. Although the misnamed Democratic Republic had long been mortally wounded, the Communist government was still clinging to power. It was only willing to offer a few changes to reassure the population, which was gradually losing its fear of demonstrating.

In front of correspondents from around the world, Gunter Schabowski was the regime’s leading voice in communicating that East Germans would be able to exercise the undisputed human right to cross the border. While journalists expected such an announcement,they were shocked to hear it from the communist leader.

“We decided to introduce a bill that would allow all citizens to travel outside of East Germany without the presentation of proof,” Schabowski said to the cameras, which captured a historic moment.

After repeatedly emphasizing the political will to allow travel without government authorization, Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrman, who covered the event for ANSA, asked the two questions that knocked down the wall that ruined the lives of so many separated families: “When does it come into effect? Immediately?” he asked confidently while his colleagues were still surprised by the announcement.

Schabowski did not have a specific answer to the question because he had not read the details of the report given to him by the authorities. Towards the end of the document, the text indicated that the measure would be put into effect in the upcoming days so that the border guards would receive the necessary instructions to deal with the radical change. Inhibited by the live cameras, the official hesitated, stuttered, and made the fatal mistake. He replied, “Well, the truth is that I wouldn’t know how to answer you, but yes. The decision is firm, and the border posts with West Germany will be opened immediately. Yes, immediately.”

The result was logical. At the same time, thousands of people went to the border points to exercise their stated right, that same night, and the guards found themselves in the dilemma of fiercely repressing or letting go. The authorities, faced with the overwhelming reality, gave the order to let people pass. It was 9th November 1989. From then on, the GDR’s agony began and officially ended on 3rd October of the following year.

Both protagonists of the story ended up being friends. On one occasion, the Italian journalist commented that Schabowski admitted to him that he was surprised and overwhelmed by the tone of his question: “No one had dared to speak to me like that before.”

The former Eastern civil servant died in 2015 at the age of 86. He died repentant of his government and referred to the GDR as “a mistake.” Towards the end of his life, he ended up supporting Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the CDU. The Italian journalist, born in Florence 90 years ago, still lives and is, for many, the man who knocked down the Berlin Wall.

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